Three “cast iron” events that defined my immediate ancestors lives … and mine!

Between 1855 and the end of that century a number of significant events occurred that impacted on the lives of my ancestors, and directly on my own life too. They placed our lives within a context, a history of the times, something which I am finding to be the most interesting part of my family tree search.

The first was the discovery of a vein of haematite, iron ore, on the Cumbrian coast in the small village of Haverigg. Analysis showed it to be the richest and purest ore with the highest iron content in the whole world. The second event was the massive slump that occurred in the market value and price of copper and tin which severely affected the lives of many, especially mining families, in the southern English county of Cornwall. Connecting these two events led to the migration of many Cornish miners, including my maternal great grandfather William Waters, to that tiny Cumbrian village. The third event was the “cutting of the first sod” of The Outer Sea Embankment Works (The new sea wall) to protect flooding of the Cumbrian iron ore mine on April 27th 1900.

The new sea wall begins at Hodbarrow, Haverigg, Cumbria

The family grows!

By now the mine was known as Hodbarrow, my great grandfather William would live for only a further year and his son William, now 28 years old and working down the mine, would become the head of the household. In July 1901, young William would marry Emily and begin his family of 13 children of which six of them died before they were 2 years old. My mother, Marian, was the 13th and born in 1920. Thankfully …. she survived and lived to a ripe old age of 91!

The collapsed old sea wall at Hodbarrow mine

The big problem with this particular iron ore mine in Cumbria was that it extended quite some way under the Irish Sea and when first opened a sea wall or barrier was constructed, mostly from wood, to minimise inundation of sea water. It didn’t last long, so a second wall was built of concrete which lasted considerably longer until it too just “sank”! And so a third wall was commissioned to be built quite differently using huge blocks of concrete and massive rocks which presumably would keep the sea away from the mine entrance and shafts whilst also maybe flexing with the tidal flow.

And so the first sod was cut in 1900 at the village end of the wall only 100 metres away from grandad’s miners house in Concrete Square. The name says it all about the houses shape and construction, and a large village party was held near there with “bunting, union jacks, and the village brass band”! The wall took 5 long years to complete with many related injuries and deaths, the final stone being laid on April 13th 1905.

The new sea wall at Hodbarrow, Haverigg, Cumbria is finished

I was born in that house, 10 Concrete Square, in 1947. Today, the whole square of houses has gone, bulldozed to oblivion, but 100 metres away that bloody great wall survives, snaking away for a couple of miles around the coast to the site of the old ironworks and foundries, still defying everything the Irish Sea can throw at it!

View today of the new sea wall at Haverigg
Today, “new sea wall” at Haverigg, Cumbria provides a water skiing lagoon at a holiday park
The new sea wall at Haverigg, Cumbria
120 years on, the new sea wall survives! But no mine!

A family defined by iron!

Across these 100+ years ironmaking became an economic magnet and lifeline for the area. When the vein of iron ore was found the nearby “town” of Millom was really an ancient settlement of 100 souls, but within a few short years it had grown to 10,000 with an ironworks and associated industries, a railway line and station, a sea port and all fed from the richest iron ore in the world from our tiny village of Haverigg. My great grandfather worked in the mine, and so did his son, my grandfather. My dad worked at the ironworks, in the foundry, after his military service. And it was Millom Ironworks that gave me my own first job as a laboratory apprentice at the age of 16 having been a complete failure at school …… except I was brilliant at chemistry ….. was sent to night school for 3 years …. then to university …… MSc, PhD …. and the rest is history!

What history defines YOUR family?

As you can see from my post 4 generations of my family were defined within the context of iron making and the mining of the ore to feed the blast furnaces in West Cumbria. Within 100 years however that boom in Cumbria was dead and it was time for yours truly to move on. I’d be interested to know of what history or historical events defined YOUR history, maybe the latest 3-4 generations? Do tell!

19 thoughts on “Three “cast iron” events that defined my immediate ancestors lives … and mine!

  1. Great reading Dr B. I’m really enjoying your blog. I’m not sure I can make my family history as interesting with 400+ years of farmers from Cheshire. A cow is still a cow whichever generation you’re in. However, my grandmother’s family (Mawsons) is a lot more interesting with actors, actresses, authors, landscape architects and the possibility of a famous Antarctic explorer (not yet found the link though). This branch has provided a convoluted link via a string of marriages to Queen Victoria. Applying the PEST philosophy here would be an interesting exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great comment 👍 We lived in Chester and Middlewich for quite some time in our lives and I would have thought that the variety of history would have influenced your ancestors in many different ways. Roundheads and Monarchists, Enclosure Acts, Agricultural Revolution, William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, etc etc. This is what makes my 500 years of tin miners interesting as they moved around 🙏🙏


  2. I’ll have to think hard of how my generations are defined! I grew up in a county called “Iron County”, but no, my ancestors didn’t work the mine. There must be something – I’ll noodle on it. By the way, my mother’s name is Marian as well! Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you should do it! It was easy for me, 3 generations before me working in iron and steel before I left school early and into the ironworks at 16. But, it was a cultural upbringing into my soul that was never left behind with a doctorate in chemistry, a masters in psychology and battling through industries based on computer manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and financial services. I am still a man of iron!


  3. Fascinating stuff! For me, it would be Catherine the Great’s Manifesto of 1763 inviting German farmers to settle the steppes of Russia, the beginnings of the Russian revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century and subsequent migration of Eastern Europeans and the settling of the Canadian prairies. It is amazing how world events define our history and make us who we are today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was lucky enough to work for a while in Whitehaven in Cumbria. It was a refuse collection contract with Copeland District Council. I always looked forward to visiting the offices there. Millom I have to say has to be the strangest place that I have ever visited in England.

    A defining moment, I guess this might have to be 1940 and the London Blitz. Mum was evacuated from Catford in South London to Northamptonshire and met my dad.

    This is a story that I wrote about my London heritage…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember your writing about Whitehaven and visiting Millom. A ghost town since 1968 and not improving because of no investment and young people moving out. Funny folks there! I remember your Catford post and visiting your grandparents house ….. at least it’s still standing …… ??


        1. Detached from the whole planet! Just by the railway station there’s The Bridge Cafe, used to go there for pie and hot Vimto! Still go in, it’s like something from those American movies where everyone looks at you as you go in. I usually wear my oldest clothes and put on my strongest Cumberland accent. But the mugs of tea are only 95p and thickest bacon butties about £1.25, but I always have some old £.S.D handy just in case. Tend not to take the wife, wrong colour 😂😂

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Super post! I learned a lot. The family I’m following right now kept moving along, but my mom’s family stayed in the hills of Indiana for 100 years and I’m curious to figure out why they went there in the first place and what kept them there. I will be sure to share when the mystery unravels. I agree that the research to answer those questions is great fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, and yes, researching that 100 years will be fun and I guess very revealing too. It really is those wider contexts that interests me, I’m never going to find I’m related to an Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill or kings and queens so having the wider focus on the big picture is my greatest interest.


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